Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

March 13, 2014

Mountaineers will be in the NCAAs, but will West Virginia?

By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

BLUEFIELD — Mark it down: the Mountaineers are in.    Well, maybe not 'your’ Mountaineers, but the Mountaineers of Mount St. Mary's will be dancing when the NCAA Tournament bracket is released on Sunday.

Mount St. Mary's has a less than imposing record of 16-16, but these Mountaineers will be playing someone, probably in a play-in game, on Tuesday in Dayton, Ohio.

Those Mountaineers defeated Robert Morris on their home floor in the Northeast Conference title game to earn their way. They have little hope of advancing far, but getting that chance is what Championship Week is all about.

Another collection of Mountaineers from West Virginia hopes for a similar invitation, but they will have to earn it, probably by winning the Big 12 tournament, which begins tonight for WVU against Texas.  

West Virginia is currently 17-14, which includes a season-opening win over Mount St. Mary's, and impressive resume-building victories over probable NCAA tourney squads like Kansas, Iowa State, Oklahoma and Kansas State.

In fact, check out West Virginia's credentials, and outside of losses at Virginia Tech, Purdue and possibly Missouri — which is also on the proverbial tournament bubble — the other 11 defeats this season have come to NCAA-caliber squads, including non-conference foes Gonzaga and Wisconsin.

Yet, check out the many ratings systems currently out there and West Virginia isn’t likely to hear its name on Sunday. Their current RPI rating was 83rd with a schedule strength of 40, and the field only includes 68 teams, including several schools like Mount Saint Mary's who are nowhere near the top 100.

ESPN has also created the BPI, which takes several factors into account, including final score, pace of play, strength of schedule and more. After searching for West Virginia on that chart, they are sitting at 118.

That isn't a good sign.

West Virginia appeared to be bound for the NIT, CIT, Collegeinsider.com or a losing record with an 11-9 mark on Jan. 25 before Juwan Staten turned into one of the league's best players, and led the Mountaineers to consecutive wins over Baylor, Kansas State and Oklahoma.

Suddenly, the Mountaineers were appearing on ESPN’s Joe Lunardi’s tournament bracket, but they have since disappeared.

That’s because the Mountaineers have gone 3-5 over the last eight games, although two of those wins came over the Cyclones and Jayhawks, both at home. Winning on the road hasn't been easy for West Virginia, with the only significant road win of the season being a two-point decision at then-struggling Baylor.

West Virginia left the Big East in what may have been the best basketball league in the nation, and wound up in the Big 12, which may hold the same title this season.

At least six and possibly seven Big 12 teams could earn NCAA Tournament bids, including Oklahoma State, which is 20-10, but 8-10 in the league, finishing behind West Virginia, even though they did beat the Mountaineers twice this season.

Teams with 17-14 records have gotten in before, but these Mountaineers likely won't be one of them.

That is why it is the Big 12 title or bust for West Virginia.

Yet, who is to say it can't happen? That is what makes Championship Week one of the best parts of the sports calendar, and what makes college basketball so special.

Everyone gets a chance. Win your postseason tournament and you are in. Yes, it does seem unfair for a team from a lower-tier league to play consistent basketball for four months, and then get left out because some team gets hot for three games.

Lose, and it’s up to the selection committee to make the tough choices, and normally they are going with the big programs with gaudy reputations.

It will be just like that with the new selection committee for football. Marshall, for instance, could go undefeated and win Conference USA for the next five years and because they don’t play in a major conference, the Herd will never get anywhere near challenging for a national title at the Division I level.

In basketball, get in and you have a chance. Hey, in recent years, Butler has played in two national title games, and Virginia Commonwealth, George Mason and Wichita State have reached the Final Four.

It can be done. Schools like Florida Gulf Coast even made a run last March by winning a couple of games. This is the chance all these teams want, an opportunity to prove their worth against nationally known programs.

Some would like to see schools like Mount St. Mary’s and other current  tournament qualifiers like Wofford — coached by former Emory & Henry basketball player Mike Young — Milwaukee, Eastern Kentucky and Manhattan left to their own title chase.

That would be a mistake, since that is what makes the first week of the NCAA tournament as good as it gets in sports. That is what makes filling out those brackets so much fun.

Anything can happen, and usually does.

Warren Buffet is offering $1 billion to anyone who can pick a perfect bracket this season. He can do that because the likelihood of that happening is about as slim as any of us becoming a billionaire.

But, why not play? You never know until you try.

Championship Week is upon is. Check out the TV listings. It’s tempting to call in with basketball fever and stay home and watch hoops for the next four days.

Hmmmm...it is supposed to snow on Thursday.

—Brian Woodson is the sports editor for the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at bwoodson@bdtonline.com or on Twitter @bdtwoodson.